Aw Shucks, It’s SHUCS

In what can only be described as having extremely high aspirations by competing in the Big Boys league, Omnipless tenders on and is awarded a contract perhaps under false pretenses. This was SHUCS or SpaceHab Universal Communication System with the ultimate customer being NASA.

Much of what they committed to would require extraordinary effort. With little capital or knowledge about engineering equipment for conditions in space, any snags, glitches or deviations from plan could financially cripple Omnipless.

This is the story of a bunch of intrepid South African engineers who beat the odds and met their target albeit by a narrow margin. It had been a close-run thing.

Main picture: SHUCS finally in space: The antenna is in a roughly horizontal attitude on top of a positioner, on top of a Spacehab module at the back of the Shuttle cargo bay.

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Food Aversions: My Green Revolution

This is another episode in his Vignettes of Youth series whereby he recalls the quirks and oddities of life in Port Elizabeth during the 1960s and 1970’s when life was far simpler but discipline was more stringent. No doubt psychologists reading these sketches will be aghast and wonder aloud why our generation was not more ill-adjusted due to the trauma inflicted upon us by parents who did not appreciate the wonders of slothfulness, indolence and the permissive society.

Indignities such as having to walk to school by ourselves from age 6 were formative experiences. Having my first caning by the headmaster at age 8, was a sobering experience even if I was mis-identified as the culprit in a boxing fight. No summons was issued against the Head Master of the Hurbet Hurd Primary School – Mr Emmerick – “Bucket” to us – or to the Cape Education Department. Instead one wore such “traumatic scars” as a badge of honour, as having crossed one hurdle. Moreover spending a morning on the beath without adult supervision or being tethered to one’s parents by a cellphone, were socially appropriate. One’s parents would never have been admonished for their lack of parenting skills and reported to the Welfare Department.

Undoubtedly it was a tough life, but we survived. And were probably more well adjusted for the experience.

Warning to the Readers:  If you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten intolerant, starch intolerant or just generally intolerant, don’t read on.

My parents grew up in an era when you ate whatever was put in front of you no matter how repulsive.  Like all kids, at a certain stage I became pernickety about my supper and, again like all kids, it concerned vegetables.

Main picture: Decades later, I came across this advert for MNET. That was me. He even looks like me. All that was missing was the radio

Mom wasn’t a great cook but she could do a mean roast leg of lamb which was our Friday night special.  We kids got turns every week to chew off all the lovely bits that were left on the bone – yummy.  There were lots of fights about that.  The roast potatoes were the best I’ve ever eaten.  I’ve tried to emulate them, but I’ve never got it right.

Perhaps the secret was in the dripping.  There was always the white enamel bowl in the oven which was regularly topped up with any new fat renderings from various meats that Mom fried and the fat from each roast was poured back into the bowl.  It would be topped up every now and again with a fresh block of dripping.  After an indeterminate amount of time it would eventually be thrown away and a new pristine lot was started.  When times were tight, that dripping served as our butter.  (Note for the younger reader: Yellow margarine was banned in SA until 1972 but white margarine was allowed for cakes and the really poor.)

Unfortunately economic strictures meant that the leg of lamb was eventually replaced with a roast chicken which was a sad day.  The roast potatoes, however, were still delicious.

At some stage I picked up an aversion to vegetables.  A more modern and gentler child-centered psychological approach would have allowed me latitude to explore the culinary world at my pace.  Unfortunately, Dad was made of sterner stuff and insisted that I finish my food, no matter what.  More unfortunately, I was made of sterner stuff too and the result was a gigantic contest of wills on nights when particularly cauliflower and cabbage were served.

I must digress a bit.  We always ate in the kitchen while the dining room was like Granny Dix’s sitting room in that it was reserved for the visitors that we never got.  The table was shoved against the wall, splitting the stove from the sink area.  Dad sat at the head of the table and Cheryl and Mom sat on one side.  Dean and I sat on a bench on the sink side.  For whatever reason, I was placed next to Dad and could thus be held under close observation.  If I whinged too much, he could klap me without getting up.  Dad’s transistor radio took pride of place with him at the head.  We were the most well informed kids on the block and always knew what the weather would be like the next day:

“From Plettenberg Bay to Algoa Bay, there is no gale warning, I repeat, there is no gale warning.” would regale us most nights.

On bad nights when the plate was full of unidentifiable bits it would be purgatory.  Supper for me could last over an hour in a contest of wills between Dad and me.  I normally lost but at least I got to listen to a lot of radio.

A small silver lining was that Mickey slept on a bunch of smelly blankets under the bench.  Unfortunately, his food tastes were similar to mine and would not touch Mom’s cabbage.  However, if Dad got up for a while, I would hastily transfer food to the folds of his blankets.  Mom tried to help by giving me less of my hated veggies, but she couldn’t make it too obvious.

Mickey the dog given to us when the Sayers emigrated to New Zealand
Mickey the dog given to us when the Sayers emigrated to New Zealand. Mickey was Blaine’s unwitting partner in crime

I forget how many years this situation continued but it got so bad that I would start asking Mom from mid-afternoon what we would be having for supper.  If it was to be macaroni, the afternoon would be blissful innocence and fun (quite often these concepts are polar opposites in boys).   If not, I would rearrange Mickey’s blankets to make useful little disposal pockets.  I suppose I should be grateful that God hadn’t invented Broccoli by the 60’s otherwise I would never have made it through my childhood.  I would still be sitting at that table with Mickey long gone.

By the age of 20 I outgrew my food prejudices by leaving home and I could proudly proclaim that I did in fact eat a wide range of veges as long as they were first processed by an animal.

Tookels in 1958. He used to love going fishing with my father. Once he almost drowned during a tussle with an octopus
Tookels in 1958. He used to love going fishing with my father. Once he almost drowned during a tussle with an octopus. This episode did not deter Tookels from doing his own fishing in pools at Schoenmakerskop

Decades later, I came across this advert for MNET.  That was me.  He even looks like me.  All that was missing was the radio. [See Main Picture]

Part-time Jobs while still at School

Nowadays our children shun these jobs mainly because their parents supply them with too much pocket money. Forty to fifty years ago if one wanted something special like a watch, one would have to work for it – not in some make work scheme at home but a proper job. We all had those types of jobs. In this blog I will relate the jobs that my brother and I had.

Main pcture: Blaine worked in the Port Elizabeth harbour as a Tally Clerk before he went to Varsity.
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The 52km Rhodes Mountain Race – Saturday 12th July 1997

The Rhodes Mountain Race has to be amongst the toughest and most unusual races in South Africa. Restricted to 80 entrants, the one aspect that makes it unique is that this is known for its snow. Run from the hamlet of Rhodes on the Eastern Cape side of the Drakensberg Mountains, at the 32km mark it passes Tiffendal, South Africa’s only ski resort. The selection of the date was deliberately made to co-incide with the likelihood of snow.

On my first attempt, I was not to be disappointed as the snow was at least a metre deep at the top.

This is the story of that odyssey together with John Mostert

Main picture: Between Mavis Bank and Tiffendal. Underfoot it was mushy with melting snow and slippery mud

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Robert Hamilton McCleland: With the Pioneer Column to Rhodesia

In line with my philosophy of using The Casual Observer as a platform to propagate my views concerning the events in the world, I also wish it to become a repository of the articles on the McCleland family. We are fortunate in having a printed family history entitled The Reverend Francis McCleland: Colonial Chaplain to Port Elizabeth 1825 to 1853. Hopefully this is the first of many such articles but for that to materialise, I require information on the family from recipients of this blog.

The first in the series highlights the achievements of Robert Hamilton McCleland who was a member of the Pioneer column which occupied Mashonaland in 1890

Main picture: Robert Hamilton McCleland from the Draaifontein Collection

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My Rocket Scientist Brother and the Remotely Controlled Gun

Blaine might have been an Engineer but he has always been a designer at heart. Who wouldn’t want to be? But it requires a special temperament, a conflation of technical understanding and practical ability. Blaine possessed both in abundance. Probably because this was a tiny project, it would have been more satisfying than most as every decision was his instead of being split between a multitude of other engineers.

Main picture: US riverine naval boat of the type that was captured by Iran

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The Cars of our Youth

Style and comfort were secondary. Due to lack of money, wheels in the McCleland household during our youth were all that were required as long as they worked. Now cue in the music of The Days of our Lives all saccharin and mulchy. None would win car of the year or the street mile, but we adored them nonetheless. This is their story as told mainly by my younger brother.

 Main picture: The first car that my father owned, an Austin A70. His previous vehicle had been a panelvan which was his employer – JJ Ruddy and Sons – company vehicle. As there is no extant photo of this vehicle, the best that Blaine could do was a stock photo off the internet.

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The Fish River Canyon Hike: August 2006

As 2016 will be the 10th anniversary of this hike which from a personal perspective was noteworthy in that I hurt my back so badly on the descent on day one that it ultimately culminated in my 2nd back operation a few months later. As a commemoration, I have elected to reprint / re-issue the two blogs on this hike as one blog: The Report Back and the irreverent – or maybe that should read irrelevant – awards. Of the 9 of us who completed this hike, Walter Baumgartl has since passed on, long before his allotted time.

 Main picture: Fish River Canyon – Viewpoint at the Start. Naturally the only way down, is down Continue reading

My Rocket Scientist Brother: How the Mind Works

By 11 years of age, I was reading the newspaper from cover to cover. In addition with my limited pocket money I did not purchase comics like the rest of my friends but magazines such as Look and Learn. I was enthralled with the world that opened up. What finally caught my attention was the part work by Purnell entitled The History of the Second World War. Even though Blaine was only 9 years old, he had to listen to my expounding on all these issues – the Holocaust, the rabid racist Nazis and of course their wonder weapons. Initially it was a monologue but soon Blaine would contribute. What was fascinating partly in retrospect was how his mind worked compared to mine. This is that story.

Main picture: This Guy Fawkes was not going to have a huge straw Guy Fawkes or an even bigger bon fire. Rather being Kentron engineers, it might not be a guided missile but at least it was a potent rocket. Talk about taking work home with you.

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